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Richard Walker

Word of the day

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A small perching bird with a white rump. I don’t think you’d typically see one in your garden but I have been to places, such as heaths in Norfolk, where they were everywhere. When they fly away the white backside is very conspicuous and it’s generally thought that the bird was originally called a “white arse” for that reason. A mixture of “folk etymology” - an intuitively appealing idea about a word origin but not based on recorded evidence - and dislike of coarse words (mealy-mouthedness in fact!) morphed this into wheatears and then people felt this was a plural, so we got wheatear.

Compare with pea; there were originally no peas but there was pease pudding (“Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold, pease pudding in the pot, nine days old”); this sounds like a plural, so back-formation led to pea.


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